Friday 30 November 2012

City, by Clifford D Simak

Clifford D Simak was one of the most popular and successful American SF writers. His career lasted half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s. During that time he published nearly thirty novels plus many short stories and collections, won a Nebula and three Hugo awards and was awarded a Grand Master title by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

City was an early novel, being first published in 1952. Like many novels of this period it was a "fix up", consisting of eight previously-published short stories, but is none the worse for that. A ninth story (Epilog) first appeared in 1973 and has been incorporated in most editions of the book published since 1980. However, I haven't read it and this review is based on my 1965 edition, which I read a few times in the 1960s and 70s but not since - until now.

The chapters in City span thousands of years into the future, making the book decidedly episodic, but despite this the story holds together well. This is partly achieved by consistent plot-lines, partly by the continuity of one character (Jenkins the robot) being there from beginning to end, but mostly by the structure of the novel. This is presented as a book of fables published in the far future, looking back on events of a past so distant that it has become mythical. Each chapter is a different fable and is preceded by an introduction by the editor who comments on each story, explaining the differing views on what it means and what relationship it might have to reality. This affords some amusement in that the editor assumes that much of the content of the stories is fantasy when, to us, it clearly is not. For instance, a lot of our present-day knowledge has been lost in this non-technological far future, so stories of living on other planets are dismissed by the editor as impossible.

The major twist in the novel (this isn't a spoiler - it becomes obvious from the start) is that this far-future civilisation is populated not by humans, but by dogs. Humanity had disappeared long before and is regarded by the editor as probably mythical, or at least greatly misrepresented. What we, the present-day readers, can understand is that the stories are literal accounts of the bizarre fate of humanity, as seen through the eyes of one family, the Websters, and their robot servant Jenkins. The Websters have played a pivotal role in events, including giving dogs the power of speech and mentoring their infant civilisation. I will say no more about the plot, as I would hate to spoil the enjoyment of new readers in the succession of surprising and boldly radical twists in the story.

Even today, City is an outstanding achievement - a landmark in SF, totally original in its plot and structure, making most modern SF seem very derivative and unimaginative. This story alone is enough to ensure the author's place in SF history. With the passing of the years it is possible to poke holes in certain plot elements, most notably the intelligent alien life on Mars, and that surgical modifications to enable dogs to speak would breed true in subsequent generations (if written today, the author would of course resort to genetic engineering to achieve this). On the other hand, the story has realistic depictions of the internet and of virtual reality communications, and a lot of thoughtful observation on how society might change as a result of such technological developments.

When I first drew up my "top 20" list of favourite SFF books City was an automatic qualifier. Re-reading it after such a length of time has merely reinforced my admiration for the breathtaking imagination which conceived this strange tale, which is in my opinion in a different league from anything else that Simak wrote, his other novels being much more conventional. I have always been rather ambivalent about his writing style because it is imbued with a folksy sentimentality which I suspect goes down much better with American readers than it does with British ones. City has this as much as any other (enhanced by a strong element of nostalgia), but it is more forgivable in this book because of the nature of the story.

To sum up: everyone interested in SF should read this book!


Bill Garthright said...

I agree, Tony, though it impressed me more when I first read it years ago than on a later re-read. But I think that's just because it's not my kind of book, exactly.

The style reminded me of Ray Bradbury (though I wouldn't defend that without needing to read it once again). And it's certainly not a criticism, just a recognition that tastes differ.

My favorite Simak book is still Way Station. That's just my kind of book, I guess. But City is still quite a book, especially for being published more than a decade earlier.

Anthony G Williams said...

I read Way Station a couple of times, a long time ago, and can still recall the plot quite clearly. It's a good story, but rather more mundane than City.